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Professor Sheldon Pollock has just announced scholarships for Dalit students who wish to study Sanskrit at Columbia University.

Written by Jaithirth Rao |
November 16, 2009 2:23:00 am

Professor Sheldon Pollock has just announced scholarships for Dalit students who wish to study Sanskrit at Columbia University. This is indeed welcome news. The tragedy is that this initiative is not being undertaken in India,the home of Sanskrit as well as Dalits. It is revealing to note what Professor Saroja Bhate of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune has to say: “I congratulate Professor Pollock for doing this. This is exactly what I would have done and would do in future if I have the resources.” The question we need to ask is why Professor Bhate does not have the resources. We spend crores and crores casually on conferences,commissions and committees of which we have lost count,but there is no money in Pune for pursuing Sanskrit studies or encouraging Dalits. The irony is aggravated when one knows that the current vice chancellor of Pune University,Dr Narendra Jadhav,is himself a Dalit and a Sanskrit scholar. (He stood first in his high school class in Sanskrit. His Brahmin teacher was apparently quite puzzled when he got to know that his brilliant student was in fact a Dalit!) Venkatraman Ramakrishnan,the winner of the Chemistry Nobel,works in the UK; Amartya Sen,the winner of an Economics Nobel,trains doctoral students in Cambridge,England and Cambridge,Massachusetts. C.R. Rao,Bhagwati,Kulkarni,Reddy,Ramachandran,Prahlad,Bhabha,Chakravarti,Bose,Appadurai,Subrahmanyam,Narayana Rao — in fields as diverse as physics,robotics,economics,neuro-science,statistics,philosophy,history,management and Telugu literature — are all ensconced in universities outside India. And now,we have even conceded the commanding heights of Sanskrit scholarship to distant lands. It is as if we have abandoned the pursuit of higher learning in India. There are a few exceptions. The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore still struggles bravely. JNU does have a handful of scholars. The rest is silence as Hamlet would have it,or shall we say darkness?

The British started universities in India as institutions that conducted examinations and awarded degrees. Research and the creation of knowledge would still take place at Oxford,Cambridge and Edinburgh. Despite this unhappy beginning,the universities of Calcutta,Bombay,Madras,Allahabad,Poona and Benares did manage to have outstanding scholars at one time and reasonable reputations. In the thirties,Raman was able to do cutting edge research in Calcutta. In the forties,Radhakrishnan assembled a world-class faculty in Waltair,where the new Andhra University was situated. What has gone wrong that we have “out-sourced” all knowledge creation,not just in aeronautics or molecular biology but even in Sanskrit and Telugu studies to foreign institutions? If this continues,we can forget any hope of becoming a prosperous country in the foreseeable future. It is not sufficient if our IITs and IIMs teach well to students who are of a high calibre simply by self-selection. They need to produce seminal research. They need to create original knowledge which is a pre-requisite for any progress that we aspire for. In years gone by,the art historian Stella Kramrisch came to Calcutta and Shantiniketan to study Indian art. Today,she can stay away from India completely (except for messy obligatory field trips) and use her time more productively in Philadelphia or in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

While the entry of private universities on a not-for-profit as well as a for-profit basis is to be welcomed,because they increase choice for our students,this does not mean that the state walks away from this space. Even in the US,the University of California system or the Universities of Michigan and Texas are publicly funded universities and their existence is critical to the overall success of the system. Any moves to improve public universities must reject the deadening hand of excessive centralisation. A single University Grants Commission sitting in Delhi trying to impose one set of standards,salaries and processes for all institutions across the country has a Stalinist feel to it and like all central-planning solutions will lead to mediocrity and a slow death of creativity. The medieval European university was granted autonomy usually by specific royal charter. This enabled each of them to pursue excellence as they saw fit; over time different models emerged. Bologna was different from Heidelberg; Oxford was different from Uppsala. There is no reason for the omniscient UGC to insist that every lecturer have an MPhil with 6.5 years of experience and that every professor have a PhD with 11.2 years of experience. It might be quite in order to appoint a brilliant young person straight away to a professor’s position.

Because he decided that we could not rescue the existing universities from the clutches of venal politicians in different states,Nehru set the stage for elite Central government institutions. Unfortunately,we copied the French model of elite Ecoles specialising in single areas (technology,management,statistics,films,medicine,law) rather than the Scottish,English or American models of multi-disciplinary universities. Similarly we structured CSIR laboratories so that they have no undergraduate students and hardly any doctoral candidates. The Central institutions have become islands of specialisation and we are not getting the benefits of a large,copious well-rounded university population. Recent attempts by the IITs to start programmes in management and in the humanities need to be welcomed. We need to build on this auspicious beginning. Just like MIT,which started as an engineering college and grew into a full-fledged university,the IITs and IIMs are well-positioned to become broad-based centres of learning and research.

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The argument that an academic institution which receives land and grants from the government must therefore be controlled by ministries is a weak and fallacious one. We can and must grant autonomy to our public universities just as we do to the Election Commission or the judiciary. This combined with a large injection of resources could easily result in India having its own Nobel laureates in a ten to twenty-year time-frame. Otherwise,let us be prepared for intellectual darkness.

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